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Experimenting with the senses - Part 1

From the LabLit short story series

Mark Keane 23 January 2016

She remembered little of the flash of light and explosion which shattered the beaker, a sliver of glass lacerating the skin above her eye

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the first episode of a four-part, gothic short story by chemical engineer Mark Keane.

If you were to look carefully, it was possible to see the scar above Juliet’s left eye. But you would have to look very closely. And few people took the time to examine Juliet’s face.

A cursory glance was rarely followed by closer inspection. Her natural bold expression and the grim set to her jaw were off-putting. The sparse hair of her eyebrows with time took on a darker colouring. They were inconspicuous when she had the accident that resulted in her slight scarring.

Her father did not see it as an accident. He was Professor of Inorganic Chemistry in the second-tier university that occupied a well-tended though nondescript campus in the northeastern corner of a nondescript coastal town. Juliet had taken a chunk of caesium from her father’s cabinet and added water from a pipette. She remembered little of the flash of light and explosion which shattered the beaker, a sliver of glass lacerating the skin above her eye. She did remember with severe clarity the long period of recrimination that followed and the condemnation she endured for not wearing safety glasses.

This mishap resulted in the enforced closure of her father’s ad hoc laboratory, which was returned to a drab and dusty paper-strewn study. Her father punished Juliet by ignoring her. He made it clear in his heavy silences and audible sighs how difficult he found her very existence. She did not experience the physical torment of the beatings he meted out to her elder brothers, Edgar and Hugh. In later years she could vividly picture the leather belt he used. It hung by the fireplace creased and weathered like the carelessly skinned hide of a reptile, left to dry and age in the front room of their sprawling house in the dull coastal town.

To the impartial observer, Juliet was an unremarkable child. She went unnoticed by her elder brothers, who were disinterested in their trivial younger sister. Her mother had died in a car accident when she was three years old. Her father linked the caesium incident and her destructive curiosity to the absence of a maternal figure. He did not dwell on emotional casuistry. He recognized that adding water to caesium was distinct from the boyish pranks played by Edgar and Hugh with the dewars of liquid nitrogen he would sometimes bring home. Juliet was not interested in the transformation of rubber tubing into brittle pipes that they would smash underfoot. She ignored their experiments with ice cream and marshmallows or their mindless freezing of balloons or anything that came to hand.

The Professor engaged a distant cousin, one Beezie, to administer to the corporeal needs of the children, arrange for the provision of meals, adequate clothing and some rough household timetabling that gave a semblance of order. Beezie must then have been in her mid-fifties, an unprepossessing figure, thin-legged and slightly stooped with the appearance of a carp. This was accentuated by her bulging eyes, sunken cheeks and permanent pout. Juliet’s eyes also tended to protrusion and in a moment of irresolute paternal concern the Professor took her to a doctor who concluded that this was not the result of a thyroid disorder. The propotosis was not a medical abnormality but a matter of inheritance, a genetic link to the factotum Beezie.

Juliet disregarded the fishy woman who shuffled about the house with stockings bunched around her ankles like sausage skins. Her father loomed large in Juliet’s life and was her sole reference point. She felt a singular attraction to him. He on the other hand was dismayed by her apparent lack of filial piety. If anything he believed she set out deliberately to antagonise him.

From an early age Juliet had a fondness for words. Though no great reader, she would snatch a single word from an overheard adult conversation, roll it around on her tongue and repeat it parrot fashion. This was seen as droll – even irresistible – by those visitors to the Professor’s house who witnessed her performance. Her father sometimes indulged her in this, calling out the simpler clues from the crossword in the newspaper he read over his breakfast. Five down, gegs, answer nine letters. Scrambled. Gegs, gegs, gegs, scrambled, scrambled, she squealed delightedly. He would look with disdain at his animated daughter, her face smeared with chocolate from the brioche she dunked into a milky concoction of Beezie’s making. This was invariably discoloured with the chocolate leached from the pastry. The sight of the soggy lumps that floated on the surface turned his stomach.

Prausnitz, his colleague at the university, always entered into this game wholeheartedly. Eight across, dis or dat duck, answer five letters. Eider. It was so funny, Professor Prausnitz was very amusing. He would list words that he said were important in the construction of a crossword, visceral, psyche, sangfroid and tawdry. She would repeat these incessantly in a singsong voice that caused her father to grind his teeth. She did not understand their meaning but enjoyed the oral repetition as she skipped back and forth in the laundry room, red tile, red tile, white tile, red tile, tawdry, psyche, visceral, sangfroid.

The trips to town were an opportunity for Juliet to seize upon arbitrary signs and notices that she would repeat ad nauseam. Fire exit, no entry, fire exit, no entry. Handicapped parking, handicapped parking. Vacancies, no vacancies, no vacancies, vacancies. One particularly gruelling round of shops to buy Juliet new shoes ended with the Professor storming from a large department store cursing audibly. Juliet’s high pitched repeated recitation of dry riser inlet, inlet dry riser, dry riser inlet was too much for him.

From then on shopping expeditions saw Beezie at the helm. And then there was the trip to Amsterdam. The Professor was attending a conference, Edgar and Hugh were away at boarding school and Beezie was visiting a terminally ill relative. He had no alternative but to bring Juliet along. She raced about the airport in Amsterdam fixated on the moving walkway and could not let go of the recorded warning that ran in a loop and which caught hold in her mind. She uttered it all during their stay and for weeks after they returned home. Mind your step, mind your step, mind your step. Her father felt he was losing his mind listening to this incessant gibberish. He would confront Juliet, always looking beyond her when delivering his rebukes. But his heart was not in. At best he was indifferent to her, at worst he found her burdensome and objectionable. Often he reached the point of bursting into rage at one of her noisome habits but he would bottle this and seethe within.

It would be true to say that her wilfulness and sense of entitlement matched his own and the two were kindred spirits. Fortunately her impromptu word performances were infrequent. She was not an impetuous child and her nature was rather viscid. Hers was a third rate intellect in his opinion, her character fundamentally shallow. He rejected mediocrity, despised it with every fibre of his being. His life in the ivory tower of academia had involved more than one peregrination on the via delorosa. He had briefly been embroiled in university politics and had not emerged unscathed. Supporters are only useful, he would say to Prausnitz, when you don’t require their support. He expected little and was frequently disappointed.

The business with the wasps was particularly revealing. One day the Professor found Juliet sitting in a heap beside the conservatory window. He had just returned from work and heard her plaintive wailing once he shut the front door. Her dress was begrimed with the dirt and dust that had accumulated along the wall. Beezie was not an accomplished cleaner and her infrequent attempts at dusting and brushing served only to redistribute the existing filth. Strands of Juliet’s fair hair stuck to her tear-stained face. Her snotty nose and the flecks of mucus that hung from her lips disgusted the Professor.

He asked her roughly why she was crying. Juliet pointed pathetically to the window ledge. The body of a dead wasp lay on the cracked surface. The wings had shrivelled and the abdomen was shrunken, the wasp’s yellow coloration barely visible. It must have lain there since the previous summer. Juliet would not listen to reason nor would she cease her blubbering. The Professor was helpless, this was not his sphere of expertise. In vain he sought a solution that would put a stop to the irksome bawling. At his wit’s end, he produced a matchbox from his pocket, emptied the contents and lined it with cotton wool that he tore from the plug he always carried with him. He had frequent cause to stuff his ears with this wool to muffle the sounds of inane humanity. Juliet lay the body of the dead wasp on the soft white bed. She began to squeal when he closed the box and grabbed it from him. She opened it halfway. It can’t be left in the dark, she said meekly. The Professor felt only annoyance at this foolishness.

This marked the beginning of Juliet’s wasp mausoleum. She used the display case that Prausnitz gave her as a Christmas present to mount her collection of desiccated wasps. She extended this to include bluebottles, flies and sundry insects. Juliet devoted herself to searching for dead invertebrates. She bothered neighbours and visitors with abrupt requests for specimens to add to her collection. Prausnitz praised her arrangement of dead centipedes as the Three Graces. He contributed small labels bearing in his own calligraphic hand the names Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia.

The Professor found this vaguely distasteful but kept his counsel. On Prausnitz’ prompting he decided to procure a pet for Juliet. Something she could look after which would allow her to develop some sense of responsibility and alleviate her new-found fixation on death. The Professor knew this was not a remedy for a missing mother but it was a start. Prausnitz often remarked that he was not the easiest man to live with and did not have a natural affinity for children. You would paint me as a child eating Kronos, the Professor countered in joking indignation.

He could accept such critical observations from Prausnitz. They had known each other for thirty years. No one else was closer to him and yet their relationship was hardly intimate. The Professor appreciated Prausnitz’ crispness. He did not tend to the prolix and kept his comments succinct and decisive. Prausnitz, in turn, enjoyed his friend’s dry wit which verged on the mordant and complemented his own sense of humour. They would sit in easeful fellowship over a glass of Slivovitz in the defunct laboratory among the piled journal papers and textbooks. The Professor accepted that he had found in his work with lanthanides and actinides a surrogate for intimacy with his fellow man. He should redress the balance and take the well-being of his daughter in hand.

To be continued...